Parents Matter Most in Children’s Food Choices

Healthnotes Newswire (August 31, 2006)—Parents, take heart: When it comes to healthy eating habits, the household rules that you set are more important than peer pressure in determining your teen’s food choices, according to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and eating less fat is associated with decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.

As American children consistently exceed dietary fat recommendations and fall short of the recommended five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, researchers from the University of California and San Diego State University set out to determine the strongest predictors of eating habits among adolescents.

“Because dietary choice is an extremely complex behavior, multiple factors likely influence behavior change,” the researchers said. These factors included:

Family influence—Support given by family members to help children make healthful food choices

Child “change strategies”—Children setting personal goals for eating fruits and vegetables and praising themselves for good food choices

Decisional balance—Weighing the pros and cons of different food choices

Household eating rules—Accessibility of healthy foods in the home and parental limitation of unhealthy foods like sweets and soda

Peer influence—Impact of peers’ eating habits and attitudes

Self-efficacy—How sure the child is that he or she can implement healthy eating habits

To assess the relative contribution of each of these factors, 878 children between ages 11 and 15 kept track of everything that they ate for three days and answered questions about why they chose certain foods.

While several things influenced what the children ate, household eating rules and child “change strategies” were consistently associated with eating more fruits and vegetables and eating less fat.

Younger children were most influenced by household eating rules; older children—who presumably had more of an active role in their food choices—were influenced by many factors. This suggests that “parent-focused interventions may be the most appropriate for younger adolescents, whereas programs for older adolescents may need to target both parents and adolescents,” the research team said.

“Household rules, primarily provision of healthful foods, are a means by which parents can provide a healthful food environment,” the team said. “Parents need to be encouraged to provide healthful food environments to adolescents of all ages, and older adolescents need to be taught systematic decision-making skills.”

They went on to say, “It was surprising that peer influences were one of the few variables that were not significant contributors,” as this influence “is often discussed as a hallmark of adolescent development.”

Having healthy snacks like fruits and cut-up vegetables readily available and encouraging children to choose these foods are two simple and effective ways to improve their diets.

(J Am Diet Assoc 2006;106:814–21)

Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She cofounded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp practices as a birth doula and lectures on topics including whole-foods nutrition, detoxification, and women’s health.

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